Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave

I attended the Mill Valley Film Festival screening of 12 Years a Slave Friday night. Absolutely amazing.

True story: In 1841, Con artists kidnapped Solomon Northup–a free-born African American living in upstate New York–and sold him into slavery down south. Movie: This film shows us the horrors of slavery through the eyes of an educated man turned into a beast of burden. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Northup, horrified, trapped, and mostly helpless. Beautiful yet daring photography, combined with minimalist editing, intensify the horrors. Easily the best new film I’ve seen this year.

I’m giving it an A, although it’s far better than most of the films I give that grade to.

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After the film, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin and Director of Programming Zoë Elton brought up director Steve McQueen (not related to the late American movie star with the same name), star Chiwetel Ejiofor, and supporting player Lupita Nyong’o. Both McQueen and Ejiofor received awards.

Then Fishkin left the stage, and Elton moderated the Q&A with the filmmakers. Here are some highlights, with no guarantee that every quote is 100% accurate. I was typing as fast as I can.

  • Ejiofor: I’ll have a life before [making this film] and a life after it. The process, the way Steve works with actors, the whole cast and crew, was amazing. Everyone was enabled and allowed to bring their creativity to the process. It changed my relationship to acting.
  • McQueen: I wanted to make a film about slavery because I felt in the history of film this subject had not been tackled. My wife discovered the book [the non-fiction memoir that the film was based on]. I’d never heard of it. Everyone knows The Diary of Anne Frank. Every school should have this book on their curriculum…To me this book is a kind of a gift to the world.
  • Elton asked if the film would have been less effective if it had been made by an American (McQueen is a black Englishman). McQueen: No. I’m not a nationalist. The only difference between me and an African-American is that my parents’ boat went left instead of right.
  • An audience member pointed out the difficult subjects covered not only in 12 Years a Slave, but also in his last film, Shame. "Where do you draw the line?" McQueen:: I draw the line at the truth.
  • Someone asked about the lack of editing in a particularly harrowing whipping scene. McQueen: I don’t do coverage. For me it’s a waste of time. I know what I want. That scene was about being in real time. not letting the audience off the hook.

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12 Years a Slave will screen again at the festival, at the Sequoia, Sunday at 11:00am. The screening is sold out, but there may be rush tickets available.

Fox Searchlight has picked up the film, and it will receive a regular theatrical release. I’ll post a full review before the film opens.

Mill Valley Film Festival Report: Costa-Gavras Tribute

Greek/French filmmaker Costa-Gavras has been making slick, exciting political films since the 1960s. His works have attacked Fascism, Communism, American foreign policy, and a Pope. Friday night, he stepped up onto the stage at the Rafael‘s downstairs auditorium to discuss his career and screen his latest film.

But he didn’t step up on time. The Mill Valley Film Festival event honoring him started 20 minutes late. A festival representative told us that they were "waiting for talent to arrive." I’m not sure if the tardy talent was Costa-Gavras, or the program’s moderator, actor Peter Coyote.

But once they were both onstage, all was forgiven.

imageCoyote started by asking the Greek-born director about his family history and how that effected his world view. His father resisted during the German occupation, but he hated the Greek king almost as much as the Nazis. This got him, and his family, into trouble. "He lost his job, and his son couldn’t go to the university for years. I needed a certificate that my parents weren’t Communist or left…The King’s family was a half-Nazi family."

Not surprisingly, most of the talk was about politics, and about the problems of financing political films. "I made movies to teach people."

Costa-Gavras is a leftist, but he made it clear that he’s open-minded. "There are good people everywhere. And there are bad people on the left as well as the right."

imageThey talked quite a bit about his first American film, Missing. He was given the book, and an existing script which he didn’t like. He told Universal Studios that "I would like to do the book, but only the last seven pages when the father is looking for his son."

Contrary to what we expect, Universal didn’t pressure him to tone down the film. They were, however, reluctant to cast Jack Lemmon in the lead, because it wasn’t a comedy. Both Costa-Gavras and Universal were sued for defamation by people the film criticized. "We won. We also won the Oscar for best screenplay."

After talking about some of his other works, they introduced the evening’s feature–his latest film, Capital. "I hope the audience will be disturbed. I hope you will be disturbed."

I’m giving Capital an A-.

Gad Elmaleh stars as Marc Tourneuil, a young bank officer who by a stroke of luck becomes CEO of one of the largest banks in Europe. Soon, an American hedge fund wants to do business with him. Or maybe the hedge fund wants to take over his business and destroy him. Early on, Marc shows some signs of scruples,but he’s soon playing the Americans’ games, laying off thousands of people in order to improve the company’s stock price. He’s definitely Capital’s protagonist, but I’d be hard put to call him the hero, since he spends so much time acting like a villain. Much of the film’s financial talk went over my head, but the human factors driving and being driven by the high-stakes poker game were all I needed to enjoy Capital.

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Friday’s screening was the Bay Area’s premiere. The film will open in theaters in early November.

After the screening, Costa-Gavras and Coyote returned to the stage to discuss the film:

  • How did he research Capital? "First, from the book. But I had to go myself to do a lot of research. I thought the book was very outrageous [in how much money these people made]. But I talked to a bank executive and he said that the numbers were too low."
  • "I wanted to make movie about how money effects us."
  • On the differences between European and  American banking: "There are no regulations here. The system is completely free. There are more regulations in France, but there are less of them then there used to be. In all democracies, power is now with the people who have the money."

In the last part of the evening, Costa Gavras took questions from the audience.

  • On the overwhelming presence of technology in the film: It’s "reality. They live in a world where they talk to each other with new technology. It’s everywhere."
  • "Cinema can change society. We don’t work for the government, we make movies with our thinking, our questioning. Cinema can be free. Much freer than television." (Personally, I don’t agree with that statement. A TV show like The Wire could only have been made with a great deal of freedom.)
  • Are Euopean banks really that different? That pure? "They used to be a little better. The problem is that there is no global regulation. If it’s not global, it’s a mess."

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

I’ve managed to preview three (well, two and a half) features that will screen at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them:

A Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine
If a film makes me cry, it gets an A. This documentary about the imagehorrific, homophobic murder of a young gay man had me all but audibly sobbing. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was savagely beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die. In telling his story, Director Michele Josue wisely focuses on his friends and–more importantly–his parents. The result is deeply sad, but also inspiring, because you meet so many decent, loving human beings.

Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine will screen at the Sequoia Friday, October 4, at 6:30, and at the Rafael Sunday, October 6, at 8:30. The Friday screening, simultaneous with a screening in Washington D.C., will be its world premiere.

B+ Beside Still Waters
Six high school friends now in their 20s gather for a party in the aftermath of an accident that robbed one of them of his parents. They drink, talk, drink, pair off for sex, drink, drive recklessly, and drink some more. Yes, it’s a imagemillennial variation on The Big Chill and The Return of the Secaucus 7–it even has the new boyfriend character that none of the gang knows. But a good story can be done more than once, and the vivid characters are both believable and fun. In the film’s best scene, editor Nick Houy cuts quickly between three conversations about the previous night’s escapades, allowing us to hear the same story from female and male points of view. What it lacks is the sense of lost political innocence that drove the other films. The result feels both funny and sad…and rewarding. You can say the same about life.

Beside Still Waters will screen at the Sequoia on Saturday, October 12, at 6:30 with director/co-writer Chris Lowell in attendance, with a party afterwards at the Tiburon Tavern. It will screen again at the Rafael Sunday, October 13, at 2:15.

Toxic Hot Seat 
I only saw the first half–and a bit more–of this activist documentary, so I’m not giving it a grade. From what I saw, Toxic Hot Seat is imageunsettling, disturbing, and scary. It makes its point very well. Directors James Redford & Kirby Walker take a hard look at the cancer-causing fire retardants used in our furniture,  arguing that whatever advantages they give us in fire reduction are minimal compared to their long-term damage. The filmmakers allow opposing experts to have their say, but the movie is clearly on the side of getting rid of these chemicals. I wish I could have seen the rest of it.

Toxic Hot Seat  will screen twice, both times Saturday matinees at the Sequoia. The first screening, at 5:00 on October 5, is sold out, although there may be rush tickets. The second screening is on October 12, at 2:00.

This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival Announced Today

In the Bay Area, we have film festivals for Jews, Arabs, Irish, atheists, Asians, South Asians, Asian Americans, blacks, gays, and gay blacks. We have festivals for people who love silent movies, film noir, comedy, and horror.

And we have film festivals for people who just love movies. The Mill Valley Film Festival is one of the bigger generic film festivals in the area. And because of its late summer-early fall position on the calendar, it’s our local preview for much of the year’s Oscar bait–in other words, the films most likely to win Best Picture.

This year’s festival runs from October 3 to October 13, mostly in San Rafael and, of course, Mill Valley.

Some promising highlights:

  • The festival opens simultaneously with two films: The Book Thief Alexander Payne’s Nebraska . The very first Mill Valley Film Festival opened with Payne’s Election.
  • Amongst the directors honored will be Costa Gavras, Ben Stiller (yes, I know you think of him as an actor, but he’s directed some good movies), and Steve McQueen (the British director of Shame, not the dead American star).  Each director will be honored with a screening of their new, not-yet-released feature. I’m particularly curious about McQueen’s film, 12 Years a Slave.
  • Four Japanese films will highlight directors of different generations. These will include the classic My Neighbor Totoro and a remake of Ozu’s Tokyo Story called Tokyo Family.
  • The drama Generation War looks at German youth in 1941 and beyond.
  • Among the actors getting special attention is former child star Dakota Fanning, star of Effie Gray, which the festival is describing as her first adult leading role.
  • Several documentaries have environmental themes, including Toxic Hot Seat, The Human Experiment,  and the epic, three-part Standing on Sacred Ground.
  • The Festival will close with Stiller’s movie, yet another adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

As usual, I’ll preview some of the films beforehand, and let you know what I think about them.

My Day at the Mill Valley Film Festival

I spend Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Here’s what I saw and what I thought about it:

New Movies Lab: Industry Panel

I started the day not with a movie, but with a panel discussion on how independent filmmakers can promote their films and get people to see them.  Much of it concentrated on digital presentation and promotion, the later involving social media.

Some highlights:

On promoting your film:

Filmmaker, Webby found, and panel moderator, Tiffany Shlain:  You have to spend 50% of your time and energy getting your film out. It’s mind-blowing how many filmmakers don’t think of this…When I do my budget, it’s half to make the film, and half to market it.

Producer Steven Menkin: There are literally dozens of tools for filmmakers where you can distribute your own films. Marketing should be part of every budget.

Milyoni founder and VP David Raycroft:  It’s never been easier to get going with art. You have Kickstarter for financing, and social media for marketing. When you start creating, you’re creating a community as well as [a work of] art. With more people being able to create, awareness is the hardest part. With The Invisible War, we attracted enough of an audience through community [social networks) to get it noticed.

[The panelists used the word community so often that they began to apologize for it and joke about it.]

On theatrical presentation vs. home viewing:

Pacific Film Resources Principal (and former Landmark executive) Jan Klingelhofer: I have an affinity for historic theaters. I’m determined that the form of watching content that matters to people is the community experience [of going to theaters]. I’d hate to have them [young people] see some of the beautiful art designed for a movie screen on their phone.

Shlain: A lot of theaters wouldn’t play it if it’s already on Netflix. They don’t like Day and Date [when the theatrical and other releases happen simultaneously]….I get distracted watching movies on Netflix. As a filmmaker, that’s not how you want people to see your movie. But you have to give up control, knowing that people will experience your film in different ways and being okay with that.

Menkin: Some filmmakers would rather have their films in theaters than make money. The challenge is: How do I get my film into a theater and how to I get people to show up? Many [independent] films that get theatrical releases now have a Q&A with the actors or directors..the concept of community.

Rights

Shlain: So many filmmakers just give them up. All you have is the rights to your films. Find someone who can help you [keep them].

Maelstrom

This was my first experience with a Rob Nillson film, and frankly, it will probably be my last. I’d give it a D.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a young, attractive, European couple staying in a lovely house in the woods (shot in Marin county). Their hosts are an aging but still fit athlete and his grown son. This is the sort of place where the bathtub and shower are both out of doors.image

So you have four characters: a woman, her lover, and two other men hitting on her. And she’s hitting back with heavy flirtation. And it’s all tied up with references to Greek mythology–specifically the story of Electra and Orestes.

The lack of story didn’t bother me, but the lack of motivation did. People did what they did–which was often pretty weird–for no apparent reason other than to have something to do in front of the camera.  Aside from the lovely setting and attractive-looking actors, I can think of no reason for anyone not related to the filmmakers to see this movie.

The film was followed by Q&A with Nillson, the cast, and key members of the crew. Some choice comments:

Nillson: We started with a room and the people who entered the room. The people then suggested things [to do].

The Editor: Editing is where a lot of magic gets unlocked. A big part of the Greek mythology part was added on [in post production]. You just have to kind of dance in the editing room.

The Cinematographer: Rob told me we were gonna go up to Marin. If we ever get a film out of this, that would be nice.

Ricky on Leacock

With collaborators such as Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers, and documentaries such as "Primary" and "Queen of Apollo," Richard Leacock helped invent cinema vérité. Now, one of Leacock’s protégées, Jane Weiner has created a documentary about him. I’m giving it a B+.

In theory, cinema vérité (truthful cinema) captures reality. The filmmaker follows the subject as unobtrusively as possible. The final film generally contains no narration, simply showing what was and allowing the audience to make their own conclusions.

Weiner presents Leacock’s work in roughly chronological order, giving us a full imageoverview of a very long career. She uses film clips, interviews with Leacock and some of his collaborators (but mostly of Leacock), and some–yes–cinema vérité-style footage. Weiner first started recording Leacock’s life and interviewing him in 1972, using a super8 camera of Leacock’s own design. She returned to that project in recent years, providing us with views of the filmmaker as a middle-aged and an old man. The result is entertaining and informative.

But her respect for her mentor gets in the way of her objectivity. The film never addresses the basic criticism–even the basic lie–behind cinema vérité. In making choices of what to film and how to edit it, the fimmaker inevitably creates a subjective work that isn’t necessarily truthful. Some vérité filmmakers have been known to stage scenes, although I don’t know if Leacock has done this.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in the history of documentaries should see this one.

After the screening, Weiner came up for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • I was asked to teach at Syracuse in 2003. The students all thought that Michael Moore invented documentaries.
  • [When asked if Leacock saw the film before he died in 2011] He did see a work in progress in 2010 at Telluride.
  • We can’t release [this film commercially] until we’ve paid for the rights. And there’s something like 87 clips in this film.

You get one more chance to see Ricky on Leacock. It plays tonight, at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre, at 9:15.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

Getting ready for the Mill Valley Film Festival? Here are four films that I’ve been able to preview:

A The Central Park Five, Rafael, Saturday, October 6, 3:30; Monday, October 8, 3:15. In 1989, a white woman was brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. New York’s finest arrested five black and Puerto Rican teenage boys, all of whom confessed under police interrogation, even though there was no physical evidence that they committed the crime and considerable evidence that they did not. Ken Burns sets aside his usual historical style to examine this far more recent story of five young men convicted of a horrible crime that they did not commit. Most Ken Burns documentaries help us understand how we, as Americans, got where we are. This one shows us exactly where that is.

B+ On the Road, Rafael, Thursday, October 4, 6:30 & 6:45 (in different auditoriums). Jose Rivera and Walter Salles came maddeningly close to making a great film out of Jack Kerouac’s highly-regarded novel. The sense of time and place are letter-perfect. The characters are rich, surprising, believable, and sexy. On the Road captures the dizzy and seductive joys of a drug-soaked and sexually wild youth, as well as the less joyful results of this lifestyle. The lead performers, Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart (of Twilight fame) bring wild abandon, sexual urgency, and subtle characterization to their roles. But in trying to capture the full arc of the novel, it bogs down at times, and the picture is marred by stunt casting in the smaller roles.

B Last Man on Earth, Sequoia, Tuesday, October 9, 9:30; Rafael, Thursday, October 11, 7:15. For the first half of this unclassifiable Italian feature, the aliens arriving on Earth are just background noise. The film is far more concerned with Luca (Gabriele Spinelli), a repressed waiter who can barely talk to his co-workers and spies on an attractive female neighbor. Then the aliens start interacting with the Earthlings and things get really weird. The first two scenes lead you to believe that you’re about to watch a droll and very funny dark comedy, but the picture is serious to its core–examining homophobia and misogyny, and with one very disturbingly violent scene. All these conflicting styles and approaches never really come together as a whole. But the good scenes, and there are many, outweigh the weak ones.

C Jayne Mansfield’s Car, Rafael, Sunday, October 7, 6:30; Sequoia, October 14, 5:00. This southern gothic about the long-range mental effects of war provides little more than a chance to watch great actors struggle with a shallow script. Robert Duvall stars as Jim Caldwell, the aged, stern, remote, and possibly loving patriarch of a prosperous, small-town Alabama family. Two of his three sons, deep into middle age, still live with him–one of them with a wife and son. Then Jim’s ex-wife dies, and her second husband and his grown children arrive with mommy’s body in tow for a culture clash funeral. It’s like Death at a Funeral without the laughs. Thornton wanted to make a great drama about war and the 1960s (the film is set in 1969), but he didn’t succeed. Both shows sold out; rush tickets will be available at showtime.

This Year’s Mill Valley Film Festival Announced

As summer closes, the superhero blockbusters dry up. In their place comes a whole other genre–Oscar bait. That’s okay, because these are usually the best films of the year.

And if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, your first chance to catch the Oscar bait is usually the Mill Valley Film Festival. The two most recent Best Picture winners, The King’s Speech and The Artist, both had their Bay Area premieres at Mill Valley.

The festival was officially announced this morning, at the same time and not far from Apple’s big announcement. Rather than try to turn a press conference into a narrative, I’ll just list some of the more interesting nuggets discussed.

And yes, I know that Mill Valley is only one of 13 festivals coming up in the Bay Area. I’m sorry I can’t cover all of them in detail, so I’m concentrating on the most important one.

As I write this, the Festival Web site is not yet complete, so I can’t provide links to many of these films.

  • Mark Fishkin delighted the press by not reading off a list of sponsors. But he pointed out that ticket sales bring in a fraction of what it costs to run this event, and that we should be thankful to the corporations that make the festival possible.
  • The stats: The Festival will screen 92 features, 62 shorts, and 32 US premieres.  They expect some 45,000 people toi attend and buy about 60,000 admissions.
  • Most of the films will not be on film at all, but screened digitally. The Rafael installed a digital projector in one screen some time ago, and has recently installed another, leaving only one more waiting for the change. They’ve kept their 35mm projectors, as well. The Sequoia has already converted to digital.
  • The two opening night films are On the Road (yes, based on Jack Kerouac’s novel) and David O. Russell’s Silver Lightings Playbook.
  • Tributes will go to Dustin Hoffman, Mira Nair, and Billy Bob Thornton. Hoffman’s tribute will include the local premiere of his directorial début, Quartet.
  • In a tribute to actor John Hawkes, the festival will screen the Bay Area premiere of The Sessions.
  • The Italian Caesar Must Die sounds fascinating. It’s a reworking of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, filmed in a prison with the prisoners and guards performing.
  • Ken Burns will teach a master class.
  • The Festival will screen the world premiere of The Sinners, a murder mystery from Iran with a victim who has just returned from the United States.
  • On Monday, October 8, the Festival will screen Star Wars (AKA A New Hope) on the giant, curved screen at the Corte Madera. This year is the film’s 35th anniversary, but I’m sure they’re not showing the original version.
  • The Festival will close with Ang Lee’s first 3D film, Life of Pi.
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